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Review: Hansel and Gretel charms without enchanting

This production by Theatre Lovett, the Irish National Opera and the Abbey Theatre is fun and artistic, but the opera’s libretto is lost in the woods

By Rory O’Sullivan

Engelbert Humperdinck (not that one, I’m afraid) produced the opera Hansel and Gretel from four songs he wrote to accompany a puppet show his nieces put on at home. Their mother, his sister, wrote the libretto, and it all premiered in 1893. It was conducted by no less a musician than Richard Strauss, the prelude to whose Also Sprach Zarathustra is instantly recognisable to everyone as the theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The opera was a hit and is now the main thing for which Humperdinck is remembered, though he had a full life besides and was an important part of the European musical scene.

That said, like virtually every composer of his generation, he wrote in Wagner’s shadow. The music of Hansel and Gretel is mostly a deepening or reworking of folk-themes (e.g. ring-a-ring-a-rosey), but nearly always for Humperdinck to deepen something means to make it sound more like Wagner. The music all has a roundedness, a confidence that the instruments were made expertly by somebody and will sound good if only allowed their full range. Sometimes he makes them wild and dissonant, foreshadowing composers like Schoenberg whom he influenced. When he doesn’t know what to do – usually, in the rare moments when the music is secondary to the libretto – he backslides into Baroque primness: difficult, staccato-y stuff which is impressive in its own way but can feel like the aural equivalent of motion-sickness. In this production Carolyn Dobbin gives a commanding performance as the Witch, but everyone sings well. 

The most fundamental problem with Hansel and Gretel as an opera is that, while the score is really very high-brow, the libretto can’t quite find its way up there. This translation by the British librettist David Pountney is usually successful, but the lines rhyme and occasionally they rhyme at all costs. When Gretel (Amy NÍ Fhearraigh) warns Hansel (Raphaela Mangan) against eating the candied-house they have just discovered in the woods, he says “Don’t be a tease / I eat what it sees”. The story, which everyone knows anyway, is so bare-bones that there is not much for the characters to say. ‘We are hungry’, Hansel and Gretel spend too long telling each other at the beginning; then, after they have left, their parents come out and say the same thing.

That was most probably why the directors of this production, Muireann Ahern and Louis Lovett of Theatre Lovett, invested much more in the coherence of its atmosphere than its story. It is a co-production of them, the Irish National Opera and the Abbey, but it is they who add the professionalism and the know-how to make it a rewarding piece of theatre. For example, the whole set is the exterior of a dingy, run-down hotel on the edge of the story’s forest. It’s a dangerous conceit, since it involves forcing Hansel and Gretel to sing about being in a forest when they are obviously still in front of a hotel. But it creates a mood, and allows the show to take on a few themes: emotional and atmospheric arguments that challenge the audience intellectually.  

For example, there is nearly an entire second play arranged around the opera, a dumb show between the scenes and set to music. It is often better than the opera itself because of its sense of atmosphere. In the Abbey’s Directors’ interview, Louis Lovett says that the show tries to “straddle the world between the fairytale and the modern”: that is, that it is all a mystery. But performers rarely understand that something can never be ‘about’ mystery, since ‘mystery’ is simply the thing you experience and never the thematic or emotional label for it. The dumb show therefore is really about exploring how it feels to encounter what you do not know, and its answer as varied as the notes of a violin. 

The whole opera is supposed to be child-friendly (or as child-friendly as an opera can be) and sometimes that leads the show too easily to the blank feeling of ‘wonder,’ but more often it lets the music draw its own complex shapes, and there is an arc of reason and emotion in those. The slow-reveal at the beginning where the musicians walk out, take up and begin playing their instruments is the sort of thing that’s often-done and usually tedious. Here it isn’t: it’s absorbing, and atmospheric, livened by the performance of Raymond Keane as the silent “Night Watchman”. He arranges everything in the background with an air of supernatural mystery and some jokes. Every scene in the show is better for his being in it.

But my sense is that even with all these complications, Hansel and Gretel lets everyone off too easily. The witch comes along and is effortlessly dispatched; her past victims are resurrected amid confusion; Hansel and Gretel’s parents find them, and all are suddenly a happy family. Nothing much ever feels like it is at stake in the opera, and without that its power to affect any audience is shackled. But overall, this particular production is clever and genuinely works as a piece of art. I’ll await the day Theatre Lovett decide to do Tosca.